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What We Mean When We Say States' Rights

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This week sees the 150th anniversary of the secession of South Carolina—the beginning of the U.S. Civil War. And of course, the anniversary brings with it the predictable repetition of myths: the South seceded because those Northern elites wouldn't let them govern themselves! It was about states' rights and freedom. Right?

Author Edward Ball, who comes from a slave-owning southern family, reminds us that that's not exactly the case. Simply read the states' secession declarations: from Georgia to Mississippi, and of course, South Carolina, they all name continuing slavery as their top concern.

In a recent op-ed, Ball noted that just as the Southern states flattered themselves that they were enacting a new American Revolution, so too, the Tea Party crowd evokes that same revolutionary imagery around state freedom.

And it'd be funny if it didn't pack such political punch. When Governor Rick Perry wonders aloud whether Texas could secede if it didn't like laws of Congress, you can sit back and wonder how long it'll be before he comes back to Washington for help with his ballooning state deficit.

But it's not necessarily what happens that's as important as what's said. Some of the people pushing lawsuits against Obama's health care plan, are also pushing for a constitutional amendment that would give states the right to overturn federal law. They too call it a strike for freedom.

And while it's tempting to laugh at Washington politicians grandstanding about Washington power while they run for DC office, it's hard not to important to remember that states' rights as a rallying cry has a long and nasty history, and one based more often than not in race. From secession to integration to busing schoolchildren, politicians and public figures have trumpeted the idea of “states' rights” to keep those pesky liberals from telling them how to treat people of color.

And now once again the specter of nullification raises its head, and though it's unlikely to pass, it's worth asking whether this has more to do with the color of the skin of the man who passed the bill than any contents of the health care legislation.

The F Word is a regular commentary by Laura Flanders, the host of GRITtv and editor of At The Tea Party, out now from OR Books. GRITtv broadcasts weekdays on DISH Network and DIRECTv, on cable, and online at GRITtv.org and TheNation.com. Follow GRITtv or GRITlaura on Twitter and be our friend on Facebook.